I love Lupa and probably eat there at least twice a month. One of the many things I know I will encounter when I head down Thompson looking for puntereli or some other Roman ingredient that has been ignored by the rest of the guys about town, is the ridiculously long line at the little sushi bar next door. It is always there, a little longer when NYU is in session, but without fail when I wander by I see the group lined up as if it were Cold War Russia and this was the place giving out rutabagas. I've always told myself, "I happen by here regularly enough that one day there will be no line and I will have to try it."
The other night I had popped into Lupa around 5:45 on my walk home to make a reservation. On my way out, I looked at Tomoe and it was lineless, so I walked in, sat down, and ate some long line sushi. OK, let me start with this: there is Japanese Sushi and there is American Sushi. Just like the Gnocci with Sausage next door at Lupa is a hugely different thing then the one down the street at Pepe Rosso, this is nothing like the sushi of Masa or Morimoto. This is that strange American sushi which is really just raw fish on sticky rice. The attention paid to proportion here is more to make the customers feel they are getting their money's worth by crushing a small ball of rice under a swath of one of eight or nine acceptable fish, rather than to strike a balance between the components.
By 1996, I was so bored by the American version of sushi that I had deemed it an absolute waste of time. In my childhood, when sushi was newer on these shores, it made sense to pay a couple dollars for a very small piece of raw fish. At the time, there was a skill involved in seeking out "sashimi-grade" fish. By the late 90's sashimi-grade fish was a different thing and it was ubiquitous. The term came to mean "won't kill you if you eat it raw" rather than "this is the best example of this species to be found in the seas."
I could walk into the Garden of Eden on 14th street and pick up a two-pound loin of tuna, of the same quality being offered in 95% of the sushi bars around town, for $14.99 a pound. The same dyed-green horseradish they were slathering on everything was available at most of the grocery stores around town, and seasoned rice vinegar and rice were everywhere. So if I wanted sushi, the fact was I could make it better than most of the restaurants, but in reality just putting different raw fish with seasoned rice and wasabi didn't excite me any more. Who can be stimulated by something available at every all-night deli in the city in those little trays with plastic fake leaves.
Then two things happened: Dave Pasternack opened Esca in New York and Morimoto opened in Philly. Dave showed me (and apparently the rest of New York, judging from how many restaurants now offer it) Crudo. Crudo was as refreshing as could be. Rather than asking the fish to show its differences by treating it all the same, Dave was playing up or down flavor aspects in raw fish by featuring them with varying ingredients. On the other hand, Morimoto was showing that truly great ingredients, deftly handled by a well-studied chef, make truly fine food. Each piece of fish was in perfect proportion to its rice. Each sample had had an appropriate amount of real wasabi applied to it and, by simply touching it to high-quality soy sauce that had been taken another step by brewing with Benito and other flavors (something I had never heard of) you experienced a completely unique dish in every piece.
I walked in to Tomoe, sat at the sushi bar, and began my dining with the best of intentions. From a list of six sakes I ordered one described as dry. It was fresh and pleasing. Strangely, it was served in a small dish full of liquid. I assume it was overflowing and the dish was there to catch it, which made me think I may want to pour it into the glass and drink the overflow. But it could just as easily have been water. I didn't understand it so I left it alone and tried to keep it from dripping off the bottom of my glass onto my shirt front.
Knowing that if my socks were blown off I would probably be committing myself to nights of standing on line with coeds talking about how wonderful the protein rush after a dinner at Tomoe is, I decided to let them show off a little and impress me. After a quick perusal of the menu I found nothing un-ignorable, so I decided to double the price of a sushi and sashimi dinner and ask the chef to choose at his whim what I should try from his repertoire.
I am not exactly sure I wasn't just given the standard dinner, cut double size. During college I worked in an American Sushi bar, and had a chef explain to me that it is the job of a sushi chef to make each piece appropriate for the diner to consume whole, and that if he has done his job it is rude for the customer to not eat it (this obviously predates the custom of stupid rolls wound as large as possible). No one could have eaten the pieces I was served in one or even two bites -- they were gy-normous.
There was also nothing truly unique offered. There was a piece of tuna, and a piece of Toro (lackluster). There was a smoked white salmon piece, as well as something so big it can only be described as a side of eel, covered in the sickly sweet sauce people seem to like to toast into it. I had a piece of round clam, as well as the obligatory Spanish mackerel and flavorless farmed salmon. All the fish was as fresh as it could be, but nothing was of exceptional quality. I never would have guessed you could call something that boring Toro.
Sadly, Tomoe is clearly the best of a cuisine that in no way excites me. The most you can hope for in American Sushi is freshness and, as the line would attest to, Tomoe has the turnover to keep things fresh. It is hard to be so down on a place that clearly does what they do better then anyone else in the game. If you see nothing wrong with paying a guy five dollars for a piece of mediocre tuna, weighing a couple of ounces, that has been gassed to make it look good, you overlook mercury levels because you believe raw fish has to be healthy, or you are an NYU student from Livingston, NJ trying to impress a kid from Kansas with how savvy you are at things metropolitan, jump on the line. I'll wave on my way into Lupa for the octopus and black cecis.